An Eye for an Eye or Turn the Other Cheek?

If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. (Leviticus 24:19-20)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

It is probably the most famous "contradiction" in the Bible, and one that I have been asked about on several occasions. It also touches on one of the most important issues of life - how do we react when someone does us wrong?

So which is it? Turn the other cheek or an eye for an eye? And if it is one why does the bible contradict itself by also mentioning the other?

As with so many matters of biblical interpretation it is very important to understand the context. If the context of these two passages were the same it would indeed be a profound contradiction. But they are not the same and so we are not comparing apples with apples but apples with oranges.

In the Leviticus passage the context is social justice. God is giving the people the laws of the land which they are to live by and which the courts and judges among them are to apply. The principle of "an eye for an eye" is a very important one here. It basically means this: Justice should be just! The punishment should fit the crime. Most people have inbuilt sense of justice and understand the moral outrage when a vicious criminal who has inflicted callous hurt to his victims is allowed to walk out of the courtroom with a smirk on his face. Equally we know the pain we feel when we hear of travesties of justice where people are imprisoned or executed by the courts of the land for "crimes" that are trivial or in most people's view no crimes at all!

This sense of justice comes from God. He feels the same.

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord. (Proverbs 17:15)

Strong words! And ones that illustrate how important the issue of justice is the the Lord. He is after all the Judge of all men. He is the one who will ultimately settle all scores, right all wrongs, issue recompense or punishment where it is due and give to all men according to their deeds. It is God's heart that his heavenly standard of justice be represented in the earth. That kings and rulers, courts and officials execute their duties without corruption or bias.

However when Jesus is talking about turning the other cheek the context is different. He is not speaking about making just laws for the land but about interpersonal relationships. Specifically he is dealing with the issue of how we should react when we are wronged, hurt, upset or in any other way aggrieved by someone we are in any form of relationship with.

When we are wronged or hurt unfairly by someone it is very easy to feel a "righteous anger" about the injustice of it all. Our natural inclination is to take matters into our own hands; to treat the other person in the same manner as they have treated us (or worse!). However, as the bible points out, a man's anger when he has been wronged is very rarely righteous!

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)

Jesus is saying that we should not try to be the source of our own justice. Just as it is wrong for a lynch mob to try to enforce their own interpretation of the law of the land and the justice that is due, it is wrong for us to try to enforce the justice we feel we are due in our relationships with others. It's not for us to try to bring them to account. Instead we should trust in the justice that God himself will provide.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)

Another common reaction when we are wronged or hurt is to put up our defences. We may not actively seek retribution but we avoid, ignore and generally go out of our way to not be anywhere near the person who has hurt us. Whether we acknowledge it or not we are thinking, "I'll never let them make me feel that way again."

This is the powerful impact of Jesus' words to turn the other cheek. Because he is not just telling us not to seek retribution on the ones who have hurt us. He is telling us not to raise our defences too! Don't shun them. Don't cut them out. Don't ignore them or blank them. Stay vulnerable. Stay open. Stay in touch. Continue to show them love and kindness even if it means they have the opportunity to hurt you again!


I'm not saying it's easy. I'm certainly not claiming that I've got it all right. To be honest I struggle in these areas too. But I do believe this is the standard that God wants us to live by. Lord, by your grace enable us to do so. Amen.


Breakfast Boy

I had a dream last night. I very rarely remember my dreams, but when I do they are often significant. As a preface I think the lessons in the dream are for me, but I share them in the hope they may speak to others too. While I dreamt I had no thoughts that there was anything meaningful or symbolic happening. It felt like a real experience where the dream scenario and my real memories and emotions merged into something I just accepted.

I was in the servant quarters of a large stately home. A man who reminded me a lot of Mr Carson from Downton Abbey was briefing me on my new job which I was to start the next day.

I had been given the lowest position in the house; that of Breakfast Boy. My duties were simple. I was to report early in the morning before the master awoke and wait outside his room. When he came out for his breakfast if there was anything he required or desired he would tell me and I was to get it for him.

Eager to please I arrived with plenty of time the next day and took up my position.

But as I waited and waited I became dissatisfied. I started to look around for something to do. I felt I needed to be doing something to justify my employment. In my search for these small jobs I wandered a little way from my post.

As I performed these tasks I started to think about my new job. What would my friends and family think about me being a Breakfast Boy? It didn't sound very glamorous. How did it fit with my qualifications and my experience? Was I really being used to my full potential? As I had wandered I had discovered that this was not just a stately home but a palace. And the master was actually the king. This made me feel better. If anyone asked I would tell them I was the king's servant. That sounded better. Spiritual even! Perhaps when I got to know the king I could arrange for friends to come and visit. That would make me popular. I was now even further from my post.

Finally I found myself in a church conference setting [I don't know how, but in the dream it seemed to make sense]. Lots of people I knew where there. I mingled and listened to the speaker for a bit.

Suddenly I remembered my duties and realised how far I was from my post. I looked at my watch. I was late! I rushed back but on the way I bumped into the Carson character. He was seriously unimpressed. He gave me a good dressing down for being late on my first day! I tried to protest that I had been there in time but he didn't want to hear any of my excuses.

That's where the dream ended. And I forgot all about it until later in the morning when I realised what day it was. On holiday, days tend to merge into one. I had completely forgotten it was Easter Sunday. It was only when I saw some of the, "He is risen!" posts on Facebook that I realised. I remembered my dream and suddenly realised the significance of being available for the risen king!

Breakfast Boy may have seemed a lowly and insignificant position. But actually it was one of great honour and importance. It was a position of intimacy close to the king. To see him risen. To be trusted with his first requests of the day.

I realised how much of my thinking was taken up with what other people think of me, and how easy it is to get distracted from what is important and look for significance in the wrong places. How readily positions of service are turned into titles of ministry. How easy it is to measure our importance to the master by our activity. How we can become distracted in the familiarity of our meeting settings or measure our worth by which conferences we attend and who we rub shoulders with when we are there.

All that matters is that we are servants of the risen king available to do his bidding.

I am his Breakfast Boy. That is enough.


Seventy Sevens

"Seventy weeks [sevens] are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place [one]." Daniel 9:24
 The "seventy sevens" of Daniel are a matter of much confusion and debate. However rather than shy away from this difficult passage, I think it has an important message.

One obvious interpretation is that the "weeks" or "sevens" represent seven years. As Daniel was prophesying around 500 years before the birth of Christ, and 7 times 70 is 490, this is not insignificant. In fact if you pick out the important points from the passage, you see that Daniel is given a message from the angel Gabriel concerning the coming of an anointed one who will put an end to sin and fulfil all prophecy. It's not too difficult to join the dots and work out that he is being told about Jesus!

However as with most prophetic numbers in scripture the importance is not so much the exact numeric value as the meanings behind the numbers.

Context too is very important. It is significant that Daniel's answer about the "seventy sevens" is given in response to a question and a prayer concerning one "seventy."

"In the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years." Dan 9:2
Daniel asked a question of God concerning one seventy - that represented the restoration of the Jewish people from exile in Babylon. God answered this question, but went much further, talking about not just the one seventy, but a seven times seventy, a fullness of restoration that would be not just for one ethnic group but a restoration of all peoples from their captivity to sin. The anointed one who would come would not just fulfil Jeremiah's prophecy, but all the prophecies of scripture!

How often are our questions of God too small? We are concerned about our own blessings and prosperity when God wants to lift our eyes to see how we fit into his big plan for the whole world, that the blessings we have in Christ might be a blessing for all those around us.

Next, it is important to let scripture interpret itself. Seventy sevens is a theme that has been introduced before.
Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain's revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold.” Gen 4:23-24
This Old Testament motif of vengeance, is the same that Jesus takes and transforms to represent a fullness of forgiveness.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Mt 18:21-22
It is in Christ that the seventy sevens are fulfilled and the judgement of God that kept all men exiles in sin is transformed by the cross to be a means of forgiveness and restoration for all peoples to restore the relationship with God.

Since we have received such a great forgiveness let us not go back to the old way of vengeance and unforgiveness against our brothers. But forgive in the same measure that we have been forgiven.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Ro 12:17-21